Monday, September 22, 2014

China Eyeing Enhanced Role in Afghanistan Post US Drawdown

Monish Gulati

China's Foreign Ministry on 18 July said that it had appointed a special envoy for Afghanistan, underscoring its concerns on the political and security developments in the country. Sun Yuxi, a former ambassador to both Afghanistan (between 2002 and 2004) and India, has been named as the special envoy and will have "close communication" with Afghanistan and other relevant parties to help "ensure lasting peace, stability and development for Afghanistan and the region", the Chinese Foreign Ministry said in its statement.

Recent events, both internal and external, appear to drive the ramping up of Chinese interest in Afghanistan. Continued disturbances in Xinjiang, cooling of relations with Myanmar, Pakistan’s tussle with its internal security, Saudi-Iran rivalry and the developments in Afghanistan itself are some of the drivers. To that end, Sun Yuxi’s appointment not only signals Chinese concerns regarding possible threats emanating from the region, but also an intent to firm up some of its geo-economic initiatives in the wake of US drawdown from Afghanistan. This article examines the current Chinese focus on Af-Pak.


One of China's chief worries is that Uighur militants, who are fighting for a separate state called East Turkestan in China's Xinjiang region, will step up their activities by exploiting the security vacuum in Afghanistan after most of the NATO forces withdraw by the end of the year. China believes hundreds of Uighur militants of the East Turkestan Islamic Movement (ETIM) are holed up in the tribal areas straddling Afghanistan and Pakistan. There is a good cause for the Chinese worry- despite employing a wide range of measures it has failed to get a grip on the insurgency in Xinjiang.

Early on 28 July, the last day of Ramadan, 215 Uighurs armed with knives and axes attacked a police station and government offices in Elixku and Huangdi towns in Shache County in Xinjiang.1 Chinese police shot dead 59 attackers in response and 37 civilians also died during the incident. A total of 13 armed Chinese personnel were killed and about 67 people were arrested in this connection. On 30 July, Jume Tahir, the Imam of China’s largest mosque in the westernmost city of Kashgar was attacked as he was leaving the Id Kah mosque and stabbed to death.2 The 74-year-old Imam, who was also a former deputy to the official National People’s Congress (NPC), was reportedly supporting China’s Communist party by publicly speaking out against the wave of violence in Xinjiang and accusing the separatist Muslims for halting progress and social and ethnic cohesion.

The recent Ramadan violence is amongst a string of incidents that have been taking place in Xinjiang over past few months. Among the most shocking incidents was a market attack in Xinjiang’s capital Urumqi in which 39 people were killed in May, and a deadly rampage by knife-wielding assailants at a train station at Kunming in China’s southwest in March, which left 29 dead. Earlier this month, Chinese courts in Xinjiang sentenced 32 people to prison terms ranging from four years to life for terrorism-related charges. In June, authorities executed 13 people, and sent more than 100 to jail in a public mass sentencing on mostly terrorism-related offences in Xinjiang.

China’s approach to curb insurgency in Xinjiang is a combination of economic inducements and harsh security measures. To that end, it seeks to bring economic development, jobs and higher standard of living to Xinjiang by creating economic corridors or Silk routes through the region to the Central Asian Republics and Pakistan.

The insurgency in Xinjiang has been acquiring external dimensions. According to China's special envoy for the Middle East, Wu Sike, Muslim extremists from Xinjiang have gone to the Middle East for training and some may have crossed into Iraq to participate in the upsurge of violence there.3The Af-Pak region is key to curbing the disturbances in Xinjiang; both in terms of promoting economic development of the region and denying sanctuaries to the Uighur militants.


Appropriately Sun Yuxi commenced his charge with a visit to Kabul, and on 23 July, he had talks with President Karzai and presidential candidates Abdullah Abdullah and Ashraf Ghani on separate occasions. During his stay in Afghanistan, Sun also met with US and European Union ambassadors to the country as well as the head of United Nations Assistance Mission.4

Sun reaffirmed China’s support for the ongoing political and reconciliation process in Afghanistan and said if groups in Afghanistan including Taliban reach agreement on national reconciliation then nobody will make trouble."So far we have not directly got involved with Afghan groups including Taliban and we place our hope on the new government." He said he will visit US, Russia, India and Iran to discuss the situation in Afghanistan.

On Afghanistan's future, Sun said the immediate and most important task is to achieve reconciliation for all parties and sectors as only nationwide reconciliation is an effective measure for long term stability. He added that China is concentrating on economic development and raising standard of living to help create peace and security in Afghanistan and to that end the private sector must be involved.


In his first presser in China on 21 July, Sun Yuxi had praised Pakistan and the Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) for their fight against terrorism and all but absolved them of any involvement in the recent attack on the Indian consulate in Herat.5Sun Yuxi said "I think ISI has been effective in fighting against terrorism. I do believe that Pakistan government or any responsible agency of Pakistan will only fight against terrorism instead of being involved with any terrorist." Sun told the media that he saw in the future, the Pakistan government playing an important and positive role in the peaceful reconstruction of Afghanistan.

While visiting Pakistan, Sun Yuxi called on the Pakistani Foreign Secretary and expressed China's solidarity with Pakistan in this endeavour and appreciated Pakistan's contribution to global efforts against terrorism.6 Pakistan highlighted its constructive engagement to promote regional cooperation. The two sides also conferred on the Ministerial Meeting of the Heart of Asia/Istanbul Process, to be held in Tianjin, China.

At the same time, Pakistan is eyeing Beijing’s proposed huge investment of about $40 billion over the next eight years in the country’s energy, water, coal, roads and other infrastructure projects. China has reportedly commissioned a "preliminary research study" to build an international rail link connecting its westernmost city of Kashgar in Xinjiang with Pakistan's deep-sea Gwadar Port, according to the Director of Xinjiang's Regional Development and Reform Commission.7 The 1,800-km China-Pakistan railway is planned to also pass through Pakistan's capital of Islamabad and Karachi, with land ports to India and Afghanistan also being proposed.


As regards India, China is aware of the US influence on its Afghan policy and that as US forces withdraw, sooner or later Washington will lose its effective veto over more aggressive Indian approach. If Afghan politics and security start to unravel or India feels it has been short-changed strategically, it is likely to make its own costs and benefits calculations and chose a path of greater intervention.8 There would therefore a requirement to factor in Indian interests to some measure.


Sun Yuxi statements during his visits to Afghanistan and Pakistan are indicative of Chinese approach to Af-Pak. Pakistan is the primary partner, who will play a dominant role in the reconciliation and reconstruction in Afghanistan. Efforts will be made to integrate the Taliban into politics and governance at the provincial level and ideally at the national level. Chinese capital would power the Kashgar-Gwadar economic corridor; Pakistan would ensure its security and indirectly contribute to the security of Xinjiang. Exploitation of natural resources would be the main plank of the Chinese strategy to revive Afghan economy and Pakistan would gain the control of the Afghan transit trade.
Beijing has come to perceive that its near-term aims in Afghanistan are consistent with those of the US, that being fighting terrorism and avoiding a relapse into civil war. To the extent the two sides disagree, it is over the specific sources of threat; Uighur separatists or al-Qaeda. Beijing, therefore, appears remarkably eager to cooperate with the US in Afghanistan. However, the key is how China is reading the situation in Afghanistan; does it anticipate a complete US drawdown from the region by 2016 or will find space to articulate its interest despite US presence in a counter-terror posture in Afghanistan. If not would it look to squeeze out US from the region with support from Pakistan; which would make it easy for it to negotiate with the Taliban and of course call the shots in Af-Pak .

Russian buy-in would come from the fact that it would get access to a land route for selling its gas; diverting it away from Europe and expand its arms supply to Afghanistan and other nations in Central Asia. It would assist in curbing narcotics trade and receive support in checking the rise in Islamist militancy. Iran would get to retain its cultural influence in Western Afghanistan, sell gas to Pakistan and probably India through a land pipeline and have the main Chinese “silk route” to Europe running through northern Iran.

In the coming few months Beijing would be focussed on the establishment of the new Afghan government and the Istanbul Process, a ministerial-level dialogue that brings together all of Afghanistan’s neighbours and major donors. China is hosting the next conference in Tianjin and is eager to make it a meaningful event by using the meeting as a means to confer the international community’s approval on the next Afghan government.

China is also conscious of the fact that its top down approach of doing work may not succeed in post-Karzai Afghanistan and that it would need Pakistani support. To this end, some Chinese officials even suggest that the present diplomatic initiative is aimed at expanding Chinese regional expertise and capacity to understand the political dynamics in developing states.

In the current situation, with the US seemingly keen on just curbing terrorism emanating from Afghanistan (and directed at the US), it would most likely be happy to go along with China as long as these objectives are achieved. The current imbroglio in Ukraine would to an extent have compromised the Russian stand in support of India, when faced with Chinese opposition. India would most probably then be coerced into accepting the Chinese game-plan in Afghanistan, with the prospect of TAPI/IPI, a land port on the Kashgar-Gwadar corridor and SCO/ APEC membership thrown in as sweeteners.

  1. Dozens killed in terror attack in China’s Xinjiang, Agence France-Presse , July 30, 2014.
  2. ‘Imam of China’s largest mosque stabbed to death,’ Al Arabiya News, July 31, 2014.
  3. Ben Blanchard. ‘China says may have citizens fighting in Iraq,’ Reuters, July 28, 2014.
  4. China to give more support for Afghanistan's development: Envoy,, July 26, 2014.
  5. Sutirtho Patranobis. ‘China's new Afghan envoy lauds Pak spy agency ISI,’ Hindustan Times, July 21, 2014.
  6. ‘Pakistan, China renew resolve for Afghan peace,’ The Nation, July 28, 2014
  7. China launches study to build rail link to Pakistan via Pakistan Occupied Kashmir, PTI, June 28, 2014.
  8. Daniel Markey.’ Afghanistan Anxieties Reign in India and China,’ CFR, July 24, 2014.
(The author is an independent analyst based in New Delhi)

Published Date: 22nd September 2014, Image source:
(Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the Vivekananda International Foundation)


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